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Let the light in: how Memphis grew a national poetry champion

Just before Anita Norman, 17, walked on stage at George Washington Univesity’s Lisner Auditorium for the final round of the Poetry Out Loud championship in Washington D.C., she ran into the bathroom.“Put the black lines under your eyes, like a football player, and growl for me,” the Arlington High School student’s dad told her over the phone. Norman had run to the bathroom and called him after every other poem she recited and he would tell her proudly every time, “Anita, you nailed it,” no matter how she did.But this time it was different. This was the final round of the national championship. Of the 365,000 students who had started, only six contestants remained. She had been working toward this moment, for three years, after school, over dinner and too many other moments to count.Norman does not like standing in front of crowds. More than 250 people, including her teacher, her mom and all the other contestants, were silent, staring back at her; back at Arlington High School in Tennessee her teachers were watching a streamed version online.Norman glanced up at the warm stage lights.She opened her hands around the microphone to make sure it wouldn’t fall after she adjusted it. Her eyes widened for a brief moment. But then, just as quickly, she dropped her arms to her side, balled her hands into fists and lowered her head.When she looked up, she was old.Her eyes squinted with years of fighting off the sun, her voice raspy with age and desperation. She had entered into the poem “Let the Light In” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper–a poem about the German poet Goethe’s spiritual salvation just before he died.Poetry Out Loud is not an acting competition. So Norman had to become Goethe with only her voice, a few arm gestures and whatever inner spirit she could summon from the poem’s language.So although it appeared that she had transformed into Goethe on his death bed, wondering if the rays of warmth streaming through his window contained God’s salvation — on the inside, she had become her great-grandmother, in the only moment she’d ever known her, as a baby lying on her lap just before she passed away, a story her father told her again and again.Not yet even an adult, Norman had entered the throws of death.

Light! more light! the shadows deepen, / And my life is ebbing low,

She was in that moment also just a high school girl who, like everyone else, has had some difficult days, and just wanted to bathe in the warm comfort of her family, her church, her God.

Throw the windows widely open: / Light! more light! before I go.

The winning poem was “Let the Light In” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

The winning poem was “Let the Light In” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

Oliver Morrison

Norman won $20,000 that night and became the country’s national high school poetry champion. She has since performed with a Pulitzer prize winner in New York and will soon be performing at the International Storytelling Festival and the Library of Congress.Norman represents what is possible for students in the Memphis area who have the support of their families, dedicated teachers and the perseverance to overcome obstacles.The preparation started at Harris Temple, the Norman family church in Little Rock that can maybe fit 75 but is usually half full. And of that half, most are Norman’s relatives, even if she couldn’t tell you just how they are all related to her.Her uncle is the pastor and her great grandmother, who plays the piano, does not just let them sit back and do nothing. “She requires that everybody get up and have something prepared,” Norman said. “You might walk in one Sunday and she’ll say ‘Anita get up there and do something.’”The first time Norman sang a solo, she decided she never wanted to do that again. “So I began to memorize poems to say in church out of necessity,” she said.After her parents moved her and her two siblings to Arlington for its schools, Norman enrolled in a communications class at Arlington High School. It just happened to be the year that her teacher, Anna Terry, had volunteered to prepare students for Poetry Out Loud, a national competition that brings attention to classic poetry through recitation competitions.Norman didn’t think much of it then, other than that it could be fun. “I just kind of did it. I didn’t really ask anyone,” Norman said. “I think initially my parents were, like, ‘You’ve got a lot of stuff going on, maybe you should focus on class work.'”But she won the regional competition and then won the state title and a trip to Washington D.C. to compete for the national championship. That got her parents’ attention.She did well at nationals, making it past the first round as a freshman. But when she got nervous, she spoke too fast. “It was evident that I needed a lot of work,” Norman said. “When you get to nationals you see what a national champion looks like.”Norman came back the next year, with a fiercer competitive drive, and worked more deliberately to reign in her freshman energy with more careful choices.And her hard work showed at her performance at state. “When I walked off the stage I felt like I had given everything that I could have,” Norman said.But she didn’t win. She was runner up and wouldn’t be invited back to Washington D.C. that year.


Oliver Morrison

 “That was hard,” Norman said. “But stuff happens for a reason. And if I’m not in the right place to be able to perform and still be humble and be a good person at heart, and be concerned with the right things, it wasn’t my time.”

Norman returned her junior year determined to put her focus of her poetry back where it belonged, on the poetry, not on the points and competition.She entered a Memphis Grizzly-sponsored poetry slam, where she performed her own poem for the first time. She wrote about how Memphis has been like a mother to her, since she moved here for middle school, nurturing her, impressing its life upon her through its history and culture.I inhale a culmination of everything Mama been through

Exhale a proclamation of a greater Memphis which lies in the youth who call her bosom home

Whose eyes swim in the glow of her pyramid

Who dance down Beale to the magic in her sway

                                      An excerpt from “Mama Memphis” by Anita Norman

She won that competition and earned a trip to New York, where she recited poetry with a Pullitzer Prize winner at the famous Poet’s House, and connected with a poetry community much larger than she knew existed back in Memphis.

These experiences opened her up. “I just found it more of a release of my own energy and attitude,” Norman said. “It was definitely an opportunity to bring out that more sassy, free-flowing spirit.”With this new inspiration, she doubled down on the older poems for the competition with her teacher and parents. They talked about her delivery over dinner every night for weeks leading up to the competition.“We were really detail oriented,” Norman said. “You’d probably think we were nuts. We’d talk about breath and how pauses affect the audience. Is your pause long enough right here? Or you might hear us argue over the phrase ‘I have walked through many lives.’ I swear we said it a million times, ten thousand different ways, finding which gave off the right tone.”She won the state competition and headed back to Washington D.C.. She had an extra coach there who, along with Mrs. Terry, began to emphasize even the way Norman walked on the stage, telling her to take large steps, adjust the microphone and hold her back and head straight. “They call me a bobble head,” Norman said. “My head bobbles when I walk.”Norman was one of six students who were chosen to perform on the final day of nationals.She felt nervous but prepared. “There have been many many times where it just didn’t come out right and nothing happened the way it was supposed to,” Norman said. “But if you continue to be persistent and to work and to get in front of people, confident of yourself, regardless of what they may be thinking of you, everything will be okay.”

Once Anita's father saw her win the state competition as a freshman, he began to give her feedback about whether her performances sounded realistic at the dinner table.

Once Anita’s father saw her win the state competition as a freshman, he began to give her feedback about whether her performances sounded realistic at the dinner table.

Norman’s dad couldn’t make the trip to D.C. because he had to take a test for the accounting degree he is working toward. But as he watched her performances live on the internet, he recited every word and phrase, at just the same speed Norman did, because they had gone over it together so many times.As Norman neared the end of the final poem of the competition, her arms whipped up her emotions and a carefully considered finger punched the word “then” right on cue as she slowly rolled into the final line, the life falling out of her with each breath: “Then be blessed with light, more light.”“Anita, you nailed it,” her dad would tell her after it was all over.When the announcement was officially made, Mrs. Terry’s husband says that he could hear her shriek of joy through the computer back in Tennessee.

As the reigning national champion, Norman will return to Washington D.C. this year as a mentor to younger poets and wants to continue writing and performing her own spoken-word poetry this year.

As the reigning national champion, Norman will return to Washington D.C. this year as a mentor to younger poets and wants to continue writing and performing her own spoken-word poetry this year.

Oliver Morrison

Students at Arlington High School know her now as “‘The poetry girl’, that is my thing at school,” Norman said.But for her family, she says, now that it’s over, “it’s almost as if we’re in this mourning period.” So they have turned their attention to preparing to apply to colleges such as Rice, Vanderbilt and, her dream school, Yale.She might minor in English and even use poetry as a therapeutical tool someday, but won’t major in poetry because she doesn’t see it as a realistic way of making a living. “That’s just a reality of the arts in general unless you’re Beyonce or something,” Norman says with a giggle.She felt lonely this summer when she had to live on her own at Governor’s School, a summer enrichment program for talented high school juniors, which reminded her of how hard it will be to leave her family when she goes off to college. But she has faced adversity before, in the competition, so she knows she can do it again.“My mom always says, if your cup is always full you’ll never be able to add anything to it.”Contact Oliver Morrison at omorison@chalkbeat.org and (206) 643-9731. Follow us on Twitter: @ORMorrison, @chalkbeattn. Like us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chalkbeattn. Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news: http://tn.chalkbeat.org/newsletter/